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King of the Badgers, By Philip Hensher

A portrait of the social round on the surface, this latest offering from a master of well-honed prose reveals anxieties about the loss of freedoms

Even for a work that surges unappeasably beyond its 400th page, King of the Badgers has a great many individual compartments. There is the abduction of the eight-year-old girl, China, that sets the story in motion. There is the fictional north Devon town of Hanmouth, a dozen or so of whose inhabitants are seen cautiously inter-acting beneath the media glare. Then, threatening to swamp the existing plotlines altogether with the brio of its attack, comes a series of despatches from the modern gay frontline, taking in cheese-vending Sam and his lordly boyfriend Harry; David, the fat, unhappy son of one of Hanmouth's modestly retired couples, and an entire gang of rorting south-western party planners known as The Bears.

And finally, looming above the proceedings like a triumphal arch, there is the conversation. Like Angus Wilson, a possible influence on these scenes from provincial life, Hensher's forte is the social round: the party; the conversation in the grocer's shop; the fragments of repartee borne back on the high street breeze. One of the best chapters switches from a housewarming bash at the home of David's parents, colonised and then forsaken by various of the Bears prior to their own private orgy. The Hanmouth habitués prattle on endlessly, and, as with the cast of Hensher's previous novel, the Booker-shortlisted The Northern Clemency, not everything they say is strictly to the point. Along with the fragments of repartee borne back on the high street breeze lurks the faint scent of desultoriness.

The occasional hint of an endeavour that has begun to tug free from its moorings extends to the storyline. It begins with the vanished girl and a scenario of collusion and familial fracture borrowed from the Shannon Matthews case. All this – the press photographers paddled across the estuary, the conniving mother, the paranoid public meetings – is brilliantly done, and yet there is a way in which Hensher seems to lose interest in it, veering off, about halfway through, into a rapt conspectus of brigadiers and their wives, seconded Treasury officials and their secrets, and West Country rough trade that leaves poor, defiled China someway behind.

In procedural terms, you can see Hensher's point. China, her flint-eyed mum and idiot step-dad, are there to represent something – a social tendency or a media fixation. Hensher's quirkier characters, on the other hand, are allowed space to luxuriate. Again like its predecessor, The King of Badgers runs to half-a-dozen memorable scene-swellers: teenaged Hettie, with her passionate friendships and her collection of dolls (these have names like "Shitface" and "Child Pornography"); the sinister and ventriloquial Mr Calvin; David's Italian chum Mauro and his light-fingered way with the household ornaments. The funny-horrible (see Angus Wilson, once more) is much in evidence, notably in a scene in which David, returning to London in high dudgeon, leaves Mauro in the car while he repairs to a motorway diner for a burger jamboree, only to meet his end over a line of coke in the gents.

As ever, one is struck, and seduced, by a coruscating intelligence, that manifests itself in dozens of literary allusions waiting to be uncombed (for example, the character who, when shamed "that the town in which she had made her home had not, it seemed, wanted a butcher," gestures at the last line of Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop), and hundreds of individual sentences burnished up to the max. "On the quay a senior policeman stood," Hensher writes at one point: nine out of 10 novelists would have written "stood a senior policeman", and lost the rhythm.

To be sure, some of the intelligence on display is a matter of Hensher asserting his own personality – telling us, for example, what he thinks about mobile-users on trains or the teaching of creative writing in provincial universities. It has to be said, too, that certain of the characters have a tendency to wilt beneath his penetrating eye: the compassion goes only so far.

As to what King of the Badgers is "about", its real theme is not child abduction, provincial life or even the south-west England gay leisure experience, but the loss of individual and collective freedoms. Mr Calvin, whose neighbourhood watch committee is shown to consist entirely of himself, is rather too obviously named. There is far too much stuff – too many descriptions of the bijou artefacts on display in gay drawing rooms, and too many sedulous dinner menus. ("An elegantly refined imitation of a shepherd's pie with Italian ragu and celeriac in the mash", etc.) In mitigation, Hensher is one of the few English novelists at work who a) is seriously interested in the varieties of modern Englishness, and b) has the intellectual resources to address them. All this makes the occasional near-Olympian fussiness of his technique very easy to forgive.